Real names on blogs will not stop abuse
Again and again we hear the suggestion that if only people would use their "real" names when commenting on blogs and sites such as the Guardian's, everything would be sweetness and light. Wouldn't it? New research suggests not, says psychology lecturer Dr Ros Dyer, who researched computer mediated communication for her PhD at Staffordshire University.
In fact, contrary to expectations, her experiments demonstrated that students who were familiar with each other took more liberties on screen, not fewer. "There was four times as much flaming when they knew each other than when they didn't," Dyer says. There was also - dating sites take note - more flirting when people used their own names.
At another college, Dyer set up a message board with the aim of creating an online version of student late-night coffee sessions putting the world to rights. But it had to be taken down because the flaming - and bullying - became intolerable. With names known, abuse flowed.
Another study into online behaviour found that certain types of individual are attracted to the net precisely because it allows them to behave in a way they are less likely to offline. It is, therefore, somewhat self-selecting before you even hit a key: what you read may not reflect the writer's real-life self.
One of the authors of this study, Dr Chris Fullwood, an internet psychology lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, says: "Removing anonymity may have some small effect, but not a massive one. This is because a number of factors contribute towards what psychologists call online disinhibition.
Removing one of them - the anonymity - and not removing any of the others means it will probably still occur as people remain invisible and so can disassociate their online from their offline persona. Professor John Suler of Rider University also explains the main causes of online flaming besides anonymity at enotalone.com.
Dr Daniel Goleman, the author of the bestseller Emotional Intelligence, thinks the problems are caused by a lack of emotional and social intelligence. Last month, using the example of an email war between two engineers who knew each other, he wrote a paper about web rage and why it happens. In essence, as most of us already know, it's much easier to get mad with someone online.
He says: "Flaming is a symptom of a larger malady - an epidemic failure of social restraint. The same syndrome seems at work in bloggers who take a perverse glee in attacks and threats (such as those recently against blogger Kathy Sierra). They see web rage as cool."
Fullwood adds: "Some people deliberately create a different persona online, even if they use their real name, because it's like a big computer game to them."
And so relieved of the norms that usually govern human interaction, if we feel like yelling abuse online, many of us will. We can poke people all we like on Facebook but until someone invents a computer that really delivers a punch, there are no immediate consequences if you simply can't resist telling someone to make love elsewhere.
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